Together, or not at all.
That was the baseline of every promise Yusaku and Ai had made to each other since the day of the latter's return. Since the early morning in a cramped apartment, with dust dancing in the first rays of light that seeped through the curtains, when a boy stirred stiffly back to life from having spent twenty-eight hours straight in the VRAINS.
The last hours he would spend in there in a long, long time.
Yusaku stretched his aching arms and legs out, spilling weakly off the edge of the bed onto knees that buckled instantly, sending him sprawling onto the scratchy hardwood floor. He ripped the overworked, near white-hot Duel Disc from his wrist and rubbed the burning skin beneath, but he did not throw it. He held on to it tightly, hugged it against his chest as he got up on all fours. Afraid that if he let go, the faint purple light might fade away forever. His body cried for all kinds of remedies, for sustenance and rest that one could not gain within the Network. He ignored them all. Instead he crawled gracelessly over to the space beneath the staircase, to the ghost of a dark grey bed sheet covered in the same dust Yusaku had breathed for three long months.
He pulled the sheet gingerly off of the SOLtiS, as if afraid to disturb it. Or, perhaps, he as reluctant to see what lay beneath, just like he'd been ever since he first covered it up. The lidded eyes and expressionless face, very clearly just a turned-off machine and not a lifeless human. Yusaku wasn't sure which he found worse. Considering the time that this body had spent here, though, he had to pick the latter. His stomach had turned many times over the past few months, before he could banish the images of just what Ai would look like now if his body was susceptible to decay.
No such thing had happened. As the fabric slid gently down the SOLtiS shoulder, Yusaku found himself hovering in front of the exact same view he'd woken up to in the SOL Tech plant. The skin was the same pale, rosy shade, the eyelashes still thick and perfectly curled. His hair caught the sunlight that peeked past Yusaku and it glittered, like veins of pure gold in dark, dark stone. Yusaku had expected the hard light projections to fade. Even as he had cradled this very same body in his arms after their fateful final duel, he'd been afraid to open his eyes. Afraid that there'd just be a white, plastimetal shell left in his embrace when he did.
But minutes, hours and eventually days passed, and Ai's features remained. Which was why Yusaku had covered him up like a corpse in the first place.
His heart was beating itself blue against his ribcage. It pumped so hard that it made his fingers pulse, as Yusaku pulled out the retractable cord from the base of the Duel Disc. He reached up towards the SOLtiS' head and pulled it into a hug of sorts, letting its sharp cheekbones rest against his shoulder. Yusaku had only a hunch on where to look, but he was right—there, on the lowest part of the neck where clothes easily concealed it, was a ridge like a square the size of his thumb. He picked at it and the lid fell away, allowing Yusaku to connect the little gadget in his hand to the android.
He'd searched everywhere. And he'd found him. He had no idea how, but he'd found him.
If this didn't work, he had no idea what he'd do.
The transmission began, and the sound of machinery revving up breathed in Yusaku's ears. Barely audible, but there nonetheless. The Duel Disc came alive as well, its poor old fans spinning frantically to keep it working. For a terrifying second, Yusaku was afraid that it would break on him. He willed it not to, now more than ever.
"Come on, Ai." His whispered pleas were directed at the Duel Disc, more than the SOLtiS. "Come on, please..."
Four minutes. Two-hundred-and-forty agonising seconds. That's the time it took for the android body's inner workings to reboot, to establish connection to the isolated little Network created within the Duel Disc. To transfer that purple, glowing little piece of existence back into its old home, and to let to grow, fill and awaken.
At the end of it all, the SOLtiS opened its eyes. Found the youthful face hovering in front of them. And they were instantly filled with terror.
"Yusaku... What have you done..!"
An AI's mind—be it of Ignis kind or not—did not function like a human's. Once his consciousness flared back to life, it took Ai no more than half-a-second to analyse, understand and react to the current situation. To barrel through every article from the past three months covering the retaking of SOL Technologies after Ai's sudden demise, the disappearance of Playmaker from the LINK VRAINS, the absurd increase in absence of one Fujiki Yusaku from Den City High School.
And, of course, his own memory banks. A treasure of images and sounds that warmed his metaphorical heart, and a Pandora's Box of fears and simulations...
It took Yusaku several days to calm Ai down. Hours upon hours of one-sided conversations, of neither party having the slightest intention of listening to the other. Ai stood firm that he needed to be deleted, the only reason he wasn't doing it himself being that he couldn't. No program was capable of fully erasing itself without leaving traces of code at the end of the process, he said, when the destruction algorithm began to deconstruct itself. No, Ai needed an external executioner and, as it turned out, not one he himself had incited to do so either. Since having Yusaku pull the trigger on him had not worked, Ai went on all too serious tangents on how they could go to the Knights of Hanoi to have them finish the job. At least Revolver would have the skills, and intentions, of not leaving even a single piece of data for anyone to restore.
That way, the simulations could still be averted.
He spoke of this as if it was the easiest choice in the world. Not once did he consider the feelings of the young man who was forced to listen. Not once did he stop to notice the quiver in Yusaku clenched hands or the strain of his voice. Not until day three, when Ai revealed that he had finally overridden the firewalls Yusaku had put up to keep the SOLtiS body from connecting to the Network, and threatened to give Kogami Ryoken a very pressing reason to annihilate him if Yusaku didn't agree.
Yusaku wasn't prone to violence. Not out here, not in the Network. Even as the physically fit and formidable Playmaker, he had never once wanted to use his fists to get his message across.
Punching Ai hurt. A lot.
It did finally get the Ignis to shut up, though. After that, it was Yusaku's turn. He screamed and raved for longer than he ever had in his life before, tears streaming down his face that seemed to have been bottled up for over a decade. About how selfish Ai was being, how the simulations meant nothing and other blunt-force statements that went against everything he had preached to his partner in the eye of the data storm that framed their final duel. How stupid Ai was for not doing what Yusaku said, to flee into the Network where he could be free and safe and alive.
How unforgivable it should be to have put Yusaku in the position that he did, and then leave him with nothing but a body that couldn't be buried and a grief that he couldn't share.
How could you say that you loved me, and then never give me the chance to respond?!
The following few days went by in the strangest form of domestic bliss imaginable. Yusaku went to school for the first time in months. When he came home, Ai was still there. Yusaku went shopping with a scribbled list that he'd found on the fridge door. When he returned, Ai was still there. Neither spoke more than a few words at a time, and then only when absolutely necessary. At night, full on the food that Ai tirelessly insisted on making for him, Yusaku went to sleep with his heart in a knot.
When he woke up, Ai was still there.
On day seven, Yusaku apologised. The argument that ensued was the most ridiculous one yet. Ai was mad that he hadn't gotten to apologise first, and now he felt like he could never truly atone for the pain he put his partner through. Yusaku said that it was okay. That it would always be okay, because he didn't need an apology from Ai. He needed a promise.
On day fourteen, they came to an agreement.
Yusaku's terms: Ai would stay alive. No matter what his simulations said, he would stay alive.
Ai's terms: He would not leave Yusaku unprotected.
The compromise came out looking a little something like this; Ai would make no more simulation. None, of any kind. He'd stay with Yusaku, hidden away in his apartment, with no one but the two of them aware that he was alive. Not Kusanagi, not Takeru. Not Ryoken and his Knights. If no one knew, then no one would come for him, and Yusaku would have no reason to put himself in the crossfire between Ai and whoever dared try to take him away again.
Whatever problems were not solved by this arrangement, they would face as they came along. Until that day, they would live like this, safe and sound and, most importantly, together.
On day thirty-two, Yusaku stepped through the door, tired and blue from a day of make-up tests, and straight into a streamer. And balloons. Dozens of them.
"What the hell is this?" he demanded rather flusteredly, as he descended the staircase into a literal ball pit of streamers, garlands, poppers and glitter. His face wrinkled in disapproval. "Where did you get this stuff?"
"Don't worry, Yusaku-chan~!" Ai sang as he danced through the perfectly intentional chaos. "I had it delivered to the door, and no, before you say anything, he didn't see me, I told him to leave it outside." His dance ended not ten centimetres from Yusaku's face, with Ai wrapping his entire SOLtiS around Yusaku's much smaller, but growing, frame. "Happy eighteenth birthday, Yuu-kun!"
Yusaku froze. Still as a marble statue, a sculpture of loneliness and trauma and fear. A homage to what became of a young human male, deprived of all the things that make life beautiful, when faced with the care that he should've spent life taking for granted. In short, no one had celebrated Yusaku's birthday in twelve years. And even though some far-repressed part of him wanted to cry, what he found himself doing was lean into Ai's embrace and return it.
Those were the first words of Yusaku's that Ai recorded. But they were not the last.
On day eighty, Yusaku gets to pick the film for movie night. It wasn't a good choice, but he could honestly say that he didn't know. And so when the robot army started to attack the city, and the hero stepped in to try and talk some sense into the one that was once his friend, Yusaku turned the movie off. He slid a little closer to Ai on the couch, who hadn't said a word in over an hour. Probably because he didn't want to bash on Yusaku's choice of entertainment. Maybe because he was in pain. Yusaku couldn't tell, so he did the only thing he could think of.
He took Ai's hand and held it. Ai turned, gaped, stared. Then, when Yusaku did not let go, Ai closed his own hand around it.
And held on.
"I watched you die, you know."
"It was just a simulation. I'm not dead."
Silence. Same as before.
"I never told you, Yusaku. What went through my head when I set up our last encounter."
Silence. Same as always when this subject came up.
"I knew that I was hurting you, back then. But I just... I needed it to be you. To me, it was the perfect solution. If you agreed to fuse with me, then I'd be able to protect you forever, no matter what that meant. If I lost, I would die, and you could live your life to the end without me pulling disaster down on you. And… if I won, you would disappear. Instantly, without pain. I would've made sure that you went peacefully, and then I would be torn apart into those copies and be gone too. I wouldn't be forced to face what I'd done to you, or what I would do if... Either way, we'd both be free."
"Ai. Why are you telling me this now?"
"Because... I think you know why..."
Silence. The same as had followed the answer to that question, when it had been spoken out loud near half-a-year ago.
Silence. Same as had followed when Yusaku accused Ai of not giving him a chance to respond to that answer.
"Come on, you're freaking me out here. Say something."
Silence. Same as would never again follow that answer, since from this day on it had an answer of its own.
"Don't watch those simulations ever again."
"Ai. Promise me."
"I love you. Now promise."
"... I promise."
Ai had every intention of keeping that promise.
That was day one-hundred-and-thirteen. For Ai and Yusaku, however, it was day one. The day that marked the beginning of a relationship that the world, not two years later, would deem worthy of a death sentence.